Retro Gaming Reflections: Dr. Mario (NES)

Retro Gaming Reflections is a series of informal, first-person retrospective articles written by Eric from , in which he more lengthily expounds on his personal experiences concerning games, genres, themes, and other topics, especially as related to the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console.

Dr. Mario was my ploy to garner a better gaming set-up, my gateway drug to an entire genre, and the source of some of my fondest multiplayer memories. No wonder I like it better than Tetris and sound somewhat biased toward it at times. It is definitely Story Time.

My first exposures to home console gaming were via the living room television, to which were connected such fanciful devices as the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System. I was hardly a cognizant being, being under five years of age when I first began to recognize the reality-altering wonder that was the ability to actually control the on-screen happenings.

Soon enough, with play time split between myself and my mother, the NES would be moved to my room, along with my own television: A tiny artifact with a monochromatic display. Yes, there was a period of time when my NES gameplay took place on a black-and-white TV. Those were the days, let me tell you.

I actually did not mind, and would happily plod my way through the graytone worlds of the Mushroom Kingdom and other realms. I was quite grateful enough just to have my own telly and console to play from, and could whittle away the odd hour or two on Tetris and other fanciful pursuits.

But then I got a hold of Dr. Mario and discovered the true shortcomings of a non-color system.

If you, reader, did not already realize, Dr. Mario is a puzzle game that incorporates color-coding and matching in its gameplay mechanic. Since coordinating the hues is quite essential to completing any stage, much less a obtaining any points or clearing any viruses whatsoever, needless to say the experience was hardly enjoyable when I was incapable of discerning one hue from another. Somehow, this alone was argument enough to convince aforementioned mother that I required a color television and, oddly enough, soon received one.

Equipped with my new-to-me hand-me-down color television set, I went about conquering the viral vexation known as Dr. Mario. Disappointingly enough, my two-years-younger sister proved to be better at it than I, thus only furthering her puzzle-genre household supremacy that she already very handily enjoyed with Tetris. Nonetheless, I was at least able to soak in some marvelly wonder at the “ending” screen, in which the trio of viruses peacefully view the overhead passage of an arcane extraterrestrial vessel.

The fondness I had for the puzzle genre was not confined to the NES, though, and was genuine, as I convinced myself once I realized I continued to enjoy the titles despite not being the best at them. In the days before online shopping, Google searches, and sites like GameFAQs, it could be tough to scope out newly released or upcoming puzzle-genre games for my consoles.

I would eventually pick up Yoshi and Tetris 2, but neither quite held the appeal of Dr. Mario, for me. Tetris 2 had a decent two-player mode, but when two 9-bit gamers are vying for NES puzzle-game supremacy via color coordination and piece-clearing, why would they bother with choosing the Tetris 2 cart over the superior Dr. Mario? Then there is Yoshi, which never felt quite “right” to me, which its overwhelmingly plain-blue background and not-quite-as-inspiring choice of background tracks to match the legendary beats put down in Tetris and the Doctor Mario cartridges. Yet it did introduce a key component of my future gaming tastes, that of horizontal switching, which would prove to be the addictive allure behind my eventual obsession with Tetris Attack and other Panel de Pon-type titles.

Speaking of which, I was hooked on Tetris Attack when it arrived in my household, a 16-bit SNES puzzle game which deserves its own Retro Gaming Reflections piece someday. But what does it have to do with Dr. Mario, besides being loosely categorized into the same genre, that of the puzzle games? This:

To make a long story short, I liked Tetris Attack so much that I had to get Pokemon Puzzle League on the Nintendo 64. Now, I was able to convince a friend or two to enjoy Tetris Attack also, in order for me to have some decent human competition. However, such recruitment attempts proved fruitless with the rather similar Pokemon Puzzle League on N64. Such conjecturing as to why might only prove to be similarly futile.

But one result of the forays into 64-bit multiplayer gaming was that, even with the competition of such titles as Super Smash Bros. and F-Zero X looming large, one title my friends and family kept coming back to was, to me, a bit of a surprise:

Dr. Mario 64.

Incredibly, despite stiff competition from Goldeneye and Perfect Dark, regardless of the appeal of the Mario Party series, and well ahead of some other options, Dr. Mario 64 managed to find significant playtime in my group of console-lovin’ contacts. Whether a parent, sibling, friend, or neighbor, Dr. Mario 64 had a piece of everyone at some point, and what fun we had, skillfully navigating the block-manipulation arena and being sure to take it super personally and swear vengeance when too many garbage blocks came our way. Excitement, frenzy, revenge, tension, and tape-measure close calls all came into effect on that glorious cartridge.

All thanks to the NES original, which starts its exposure in my life on a black-and-white television set played in the corner of my bedroom by a boy just looking for the next fun thing to burn some time on. Dr. Mario set new standards for color-based puzzle gameplay, and is arguably one of the most near-perfect titles ever created, down to its whimsical graphical renderings and unforgettable musical stylings like the unforgettable Fever and Chill tracks. Head-to-head against Tetris, many would have to point specifically to the Tengen version to get a two-player mode to compare with Dr. Mario, bringing up a whole new debate or two.

Needless to say, the cartridge was a significant Nintendo gaming milestone for a handful of reasons, not the least of which would include the genre-busting appearance of flagship mascot Mario characterized in a puzzle game for the first time. The relevance of Dr. Mario has not been lost in my own life, as I have enjoyed many an hour upon its pill-poppin’ boards, not to mention the occasional for-kicks selection in Super Smash Bros. Melee. Those primary-colored capsules may not actually cure any real-life diseases; but, you know what, when it comes to a bout of boredom, sometimes Dr. Mario on the NES is just what the doctor ordered.

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